Like this: roads, tarry black. White lines ticking along, a winsome drop of rain on the windshield. A storm about to break. Coffee, coffee, coffee, spaghetti & meatballs. Motels, advertising the free breakfast buffet. Parking lots, one streetlight growing out of some tindery bushes. Dead buck on the road’s shoulder.
I was at the beginning of a long trip I took when I was 21. I had a square brown car that I’d bought with some money I’d saved waitressing, and more to drive for a while. I was filled with some angular frozen need to throw everything out the window. Some untouchable thing hurtling me forward. The car was terrible and I loved it. The thought of the money I had running out rattled me. I had told my mother I would come home someday, but I would never go home. I couldn’t face it. At least I thought so at the time. My father had died recently. There’s a time that I remember some parts vividly, others blurry.
I’d been driving for a few weeks, from town to town, eating in the family dining establishments near motels. I’d stand and skim a free real estate circular, houses for sale, ranchers on dry plots of grass. The waitress would bring my food to go, wrapped in many layers of plastic. I’d see a bit of my ponytail dangling, reflected in some shiny surface. A few times I slept outside in my car, in parking lots of campgrounds. I had the sense that a timer was ticking, telling me that I had to land somewhere.
One day I stayed at the back side of a storm, under a green sky, all afternoon. I ended up in a motel in Idaho. I had one tall can of beer, the glare of the television. There was no free breakfast, no brochures by the desk; people in their rooms in the afternoon with the lights off, the TV on, the door open. Families, half-families, hiding out. The squeal of I-84 nearby.
I flipped on the TV. I thought about taking a shower, which I hadn’t done in a couple of days, but my clothes, hairbrush, underwear, all of that, was in the car. Then I flipped past some unscrambled porn.
The girl on the screen, several more giggling in the background, had round hips, and was on her knees on a stage bed, a wiry black g-string stretching around to the hollow between her legs. The cameraman aimed at her from ridiculous angles. The absence of a man made it seem like the preamble to some sporting event. She was running her hands underneath her breasts, cupping.
Lick your nipple, another girl said, off camera.
I watched her lift her breast, stretch her tongue into another shape all together, the cameraman now remarkably still, the laughter continuing in the background, her cow’s eyes looking flatly at the lens.
I switched it off. Through the thin walls, I heard the show continue. Whoever was in the next room over was also watching. The room became scummy, I became scummy, a thin layer of dust or metal or linoleum settled over everything.
I set down the remote. I could still hear it in the room next door, sounding now like a video game. I had to get out of there. I took the keys and went outside, where it was growing dark, walked to the car and opened the trunk. In there was a bag of clothes, a backpack with a tent and so forth, my boots, a container of motor oil, some windshield cleaning fluid, a few books. The backpack, a waxy green canvas with dozens of pockets, I’d taken from my brother’s closet. I’d also taken a rolled-up map of the desert. I thought maybe I would end up in the desert. I would pass a place—a meadow shaded by trees, a ravine lit by stars—and I would want to stay. To wear a sweater at night. I would want horses and water. I would stop at the side of the road, take some steps down into the land. But then the car keys in my hand would burn my palm. The one ravine, the meadow, it was never enough. I’d think of someone snatching the keys from me, and a power line would blow up my arm and I’d want the road and I’d run back to the car.
I smoked a cigarette sitting in the open hatch, and a woman walked by, also smoking, two small girls by her sides, pleading for something, and she said, no, no, no. She glanced at me, and they went to a greenish sedan. They were dressed like it wasn’t cold outside—they were from here. In the horizon was a line of black trees, as though they were paper affixed to a wall. I heard a trunk slam, a voice raise. I thought of what they’d do that evening—they’d order pizza, or make a pb&j. The kids would drink from juice boxes. I waved to her as they walked back. But she only looked at me, led the two of them upstairs. A truck blew by on the highway, the jake break grumbling a dangerous sound.
I drove to the gas station just at the line of the trees, bought one more beer, thought about drinking it in the shower. I carried my things for a shower into the room.
The tub had chalky corners and sulphur-smelling water. I lay on the bed in the stiff towel, drank some of the beer. The quiet buzzed with the sound of the TV next door, now turned down. Since I began driving, the place I was from had receded into an idea of someone I had once known, and all that remained was a gusty loneliness. I was in a way grateful for it, for the loneliness. Like I had a bird in the cage with me. Somewhere a door slammed, I drifted off. I often had these dreams around then, of an imagined person, a man. It was very juvenile. I have long since stopped imagining people and places like that, in small fantasies. This person was very specific. He resembled someone I realize now that I later met. That night, I dreamt of him; he had a chipped tooth and a broad back, and he was angry with me, he was in a bathroom, slamming his hand against a faucet, and it bled. I awoke, I was cold, and when I blinked, I saw his bleeding hand. The towel was dry and I had the beer clutched on my chest. I dressed, and the light seemed blue.
The phone rang.
There was no reason for the phone to ring. No one who knew I was there. The ringing cast an urgency around, demanding an answer. Soon whoever it was would hang up, and be gone into the ether. A string of notions passed through my mind. Perhaps it was a wrong number. Or the front desk, calling to convey some information. Perhaps it was, strangely, the woman from the parking lot. I thought of not answering the phone, letting it ring into an empty room, as though I did not exist. The silence that follows the cessation of a ringing phone. The realization that no more rings will follow, that whoever was calling was gone. The silence frightened me. And so I answered.
“Hello,” I said.
A pause, and a voice high in pitch, although I was sure it was male.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Who’s this?” I said. In all likelihood this was a wrong number, in all likelihood my question sounded like a casual inquiry.
“Do you know where you can buy a bike around here? Like a dirtbike?” The voice was slurring.
I said I didn’t know anything about whatever he was talking about. “You got the wrong number.”
“I just thought if you were from around here you might know where to get a dirtbike.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“No, no, wait.”
“What?” I said. The pause that hung seemed endless. I hunched over the phone, about to drop it into its cradle, but I did not. I kept listening.
“Are you the girl I saw in the parking lot?”
Something dark and hazy passed across my vision, a strap seemed to tighten across my chest. My eye fixed, strangely, on the dresser, and the indentation it made into the thin carpet.
“I’m hanging up now,” I said, and put the phone down.
There were no other lights to turn on in the room. I checked the door to be certain it was locked. The deadbolt shimmied slightly, as though loose. There was no other lock. I put the TV back on at a low volume, so I could hear if something came. As when I’d watched a horror movie as a child. The local news came on, discussing weather in another town.
The phone rang three more times. Each time I jumped. Each time I stopped breathing until that silence arose. A stinging under my shoulder blades burned as I sat against the flat pillow, hearing my own breathing in my ears and listening for something other than the muffled stream of the highway.
I thought about making a call to someone. My mother was in Delaware, in my hometown. I tried to tell myself that it was just a teenager. Somebody’s idiot son. They probably just wanted to get high, wanted to party. They were far from anywhere, there was nothing to do. Like all people stranded between squares of concrete. They were lost. Like me. Perhaps they were nice. It was an odd thing to think. And maybe I looked interesting. Even then I wanted someone to think that I looked interesting. But maybe their variety of being lost was wholly different from mine. Maybe I only looked foreign. I tried to decide that I wasn’t frightened. But the phone rang. Once more.
In to the air, I said, leave me the hell alone, and took the phone off the hook, the tone changing to a muffled alarm.
I fell asleep. When I woke, I heard the TV, boiling in static. I’d slept crookedly, and a dullness burned in my shoulder. As though I had a fever. It must have been three o’clock in the morning. I went to the toilet, my insides shifting.
As I left the bathroom, I heard a click. Like the key of a cash register being depressed. In the strip of light that bled from between the curtains, a shadow passed.
I heard a voice. A winnowy high voice. Asking a question. I froze. The sound of someone’s shoe, on the gravelly concrete. I reached for the light nearest and switched it off. The other lamp in the corner shone weakly.
The doorknob twitched—like someone had brushed it with a heavy cloth. I could not move—my hand hovered over the light switch. Around the edge around the door a sliver of orange-black dark glinted.
I imagined a man in the room. A crooked tooth protruding over one lip like a fang. I imagined him stalking towards me, me backing away, him grabbing one of my wrists, then the other, me kicking, him gripping my shoulder, pressing.
Someone pounded on the door, three times.
I heard a voice through the thin door.
“Hey,” it said. “Hey, how’s it going.”
The doorknob turned against its lock.
The wind blew right through me.
Then, somehow, it was silent again, and from far away I heard another voice call. I heard boots on the ground, grinding the concrete. Water had welled up in my eyes. A shadow, another, passed in front of the window outside. Something hit low on the wall outside, like a rock being thrown.
They were gone.
I heard something again, and there was a tapping at the door.
“Girl,” someone said.
It was a woman’s voice.
“Hey, miss,” she said.
Slowly, I went to the window. In the shadows of the room I tipped the curtain away. A figured was silhouetted; an edge of a hip, a glide of a ponytail, in a ray of orange light. I put my hand on the doorknob, and slowly opened the door.
It was the woman from the parking lot.
“They know you?”
When she spoke she had perfect teeth. She was not any taller than I was. The question was like she knew the answer herself, knew that I was foreign.
“No,” I said. “They kept calling my room. You see them?”
“Heard that pounding,” she said. “They ran when I opened my door.”
I turned from her and found my wallet and car keys. She followed me into the room.
“Where you from?” she said. She was barefoot.
“Delaware,” I said. “Are they gone?”
“Probably,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said.
She nodded once. I was unsure if I was really thanking her for scaring them off, or for reminding me that I was not in my own territory. She wore a sweatshirt unzipped at the top, showing a triangle of ivory skin. She looked unconcerned, almost. Somehow this scared me more. A tremor ran up my arm.
“Probably just chickenshit boys.” She took a breath like dragging from a cigarette. “Probably got daddies far worse than they are.”
She walked away, and I leaned out the doorway. Her bare feet lapped the concrete. At a room two doors down, in a final glance, her eyes said, you better get on. Her kids were in there. The vending machine made a whining sound. A puddle of water had gathered on the ground.
I thought of going to the front desk. Maybe someone was there. But from the shadow beyond the streetlight, the darkness seemed to come at me, like an animal, walking, and I ran across the parking lot, the highway gone quiet. A paper bag blew by in the wind, pebbles flicked across the asphalt. I turned, one last time. The office was dark.
I shuddered. I had sense that they would find me, a poltergeist blowing open a door. From some silent forest where not even the highway could touch. There was, too, something else waiting for me to arrive, asking me an urgent question, a question and an answer at the same moment, snapping in the darkness.
I searched my pockets and the room key was not there. A thrumming arose—it was fear. I had to go. I spun the car around and drove, the thrumming becoming the empty highway flying by.
I became aware of my foot on the pedal pressing as far as it would go, of a piercing cold, and I saw I was barefoot. The room key. My things—left in the room—their image stamped themselves in their mind. But—no—I twisted my head around to glare backward, and I saw it. My brother’s backpack. The rest gone.
I drove until the trees petered out and the ground contained wisps of brown and a trickle of sunrise shone on the horizon, the headlights of the scant other cars seeming to dim. I stopped at a gas station. I was near the Utah border.
In a patch of grass near the air hose, I tipped over, and threw up everything that was in my stomach.
It was a long time before I could remember this much about that night.
I still can’t recall the name of the town.
I drove slowly southward. Stayed on the highways. I ate food from drive-thrus, or minimarts. I slept in my car at a rest station. In a day, I was near the Great Salt Lake, and it snowed and was cold. I became very cold. In the next town, I worried about the dwindling money and thought hazily to find a supermarket and stop wasting cash. But the grocery store had been boarded up. I found a Walmart, so bright it could be seen from space.
As I exited, two people walked a short way ahead of me in the parking lot. The guy had dark curls, she was pale and wore a colorful knit hat, carried a six pack of beer. They waved at a man in a pickup near me with a smiling red face, and got inside. They reminded me of the soft people I’d been with in college. They were a bright pair of colorful flags flapping. I don’t know why—they seemed caught in breeze. As they pulled away, I followed them. They did not get on the interstate. He flipped on his turn signal; I felt my hand go toward mine.
I stayed with them for miles, distantly tailing the pickup, until the snow abated and became red rock and the sky seemed lower, flatter. The road emerged in a tourist town, stores selling camping gear passing by. I had dropped down out of hinterlands, where the air held a different cold: pungent, blooming. A ways outside town, the pickup’s blinker flashed. I saw a sign for a hostel. Back country hikers, it said, and I turned in, too, as if that was where I had been going all along.
It was a large country house with a tall wooden porch, at the top of a steep drive, backing into a ridge of threadbare trees. A few adobe outbuildings, other muddy cars parked. The air had gone dry, the sky fuchsia, giving way to blue as it drifted toward night. The couple—they were, I presumed—weren’t there. A man with glasses sliding down his nose rented me a bunk, said, hike at your own risk, you’re in bear country, and pointed at a red sign taped to the desk. In the upstairs hallway, another sign read, Men and Women must sleep in their designated dorms—absolutely no cohabitating. In the room full of bunks, I dropped the backpack on a bed. I could already see stars. Inside, it smelled of cafeteria and cedar.
Later, I went downstairs and the smells of cooking wafted from the kitchen. The couple was there. Under the hat her hair was spiked red, and he had golden skin and a large head that reminded me of an adorned Buddha. The sun had gone down—it reminded me of fall in Delaware, that hour when the last of the sun dies and a cold sets in, a cold that feels warm. I could see the valley beyond, a white space. She put her hand on his back as he watched the burner.
I picked up a box of macaroni, from a shelf marked ‘free’.
“Hello,” said the man, his eyebrows two sharp points that nearly touched in the center. His accent was English. “Ashim,” he said. He held the handle of a frying pan, spinning it full of oil.
“Katie,” I said. For a moment there was only the hissing of the stove’s burners. I wanted to say something more, but a lid had been set down on my throat. How absurd it was that I had come here. I set the macaroni back on the shelf.
But as I turned to leave, without introducing herself, the woman said, cheerfully, “So where did you come from?”
“Delaware,” I said.
“Long way!” she said.
“We’re heading east,” Ashim said. “Sharon, would you like to do the rice? This is boiling.” He pointed at a pot of water with the spatula.
“So what’s in Delaware? Aren’t there some islands?” she said to me, overlooking his impatience.
“There’s one famous island that was written about in these children’s books about horses,” I said. “Chincoteauge.”
Their faces spread and lightened in recognition, and I went on about the strip of land that jutted into the Chesapeake Bay, the smell of brine, the flat sky, the horses that swam. I was standing by the shelf just talking. I must have been awkward.
“But I only went there as a kid. Long time ago,” I said. “And that’s not where I’m from.”
“Where were you before?” Ashim said. Sharon got plates from the cluttered cabinet.
“I was waitressing.”
“No, I meant if that was a while ago, have you been traveling since then?”
I wanted to answer yes. But it had been drifting, an icicle sliding on a frozen pond. And the strangeness of how I’d come upon this place had the weight of a deception.
“Pretty much,” I said. He spatulaed the food into a bowl.
“We were working at surf shop in San Diego,” Sharon said.
“Too easy to spend all the money on rent and beer,” Ashim said.
“But it was fun,” Sharon said.
I said I had an old friend from high school who was working at a skip shop in Colorado, maybe it was the same? But he didn’t hear. “I don’t know what we’ll do next,” he said. “Friends of mine had their whole gap years planned out down to the week but I never did that.”
“We met at college,” Sharon said. “Would you like some?” She was putting the rice into a bowl, Ashim moved to the rickety table.
“I should get on with my own food,” I said.
“You’re very welcome to some,” Ashim said.
As I cooked—the free macaroni, a peeled carrot–a few others came in and out. A kid, who couldn’t have been more than 17, a strawberry blond, a red and wrinkled face, and so thin that I was startled. Ashim asked him where he’d been. He’d left Spokane a month ago, said he was biking to New Orleans, and hadn’t slept inside in two weeks.
An hour later, I drifted to the porch to smoke, where it was barely warm enough not to freeze. Sharon joined me.
“That boy is astonishing,” she said. “I’d be too scared to sleep outside alone all that time.”
“I’ve done it,” I said. “I was scared.”
“Mostly in the car. I was still scared.”
Ashim joined us, and rolled a cigarette, and another for Sharon.
“We’re thinking of doing a hike near Green River,” Sharon said. “Why don’t you join?” […]
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Anne Ray received a 2017 Pushcart Prize, the 2014 StoryQuarterly fiction prize, the 2016 Tampa Review Danahy Prize, and has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Opium, Conduit, LIT, Gulf Coast, and Cut Bank. Anne’s libretto for “Symposium”, a ten-minute opera, a collaboration with composer Oliver Caplan, was performed in 2017 by the Boston Opera Collaborative. She’s a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon creative writing program and the Brooklyn College MFA program. Anne has worked as a waitress, a gardener, an English teacher, and a fish monger, and now works on the 18th floor of an office building in lower Manhattan.